“That ever recurring topic, the decline of the drama, seems to have consumed of late, more of the material in question than would have sufficed for a dozen prime ministers . . . “
—Edgar Allan Poe, 1845

“[The 1922-1923 Season is] the first season in a generation not to have been described as the ‘worst in years.'”
—Burns Mantle, 1923

“As another season sprouts taproots in American soil, the managements and critics will again declaim on a favorite topic—the need for new American playwrights.”
—John Gassner, 1954

“But what about the thousand plays we actually saw? . . . We are sure they are destined for oblivion, certain they represent a falling-off from some vague earlier excellence, ever ready to proclaim the new season we have just sat through as ‘undoubtedly the worst within the memory of living man.”
—Walter Kerr, 1970

When it comes to American Drama, our lack of a respectable literature is a much more perennial and chronic lament than we imagine. With what would appear to be a perverse relish, each generation proclaims that today is worse than yesterday, perpetuating the strain of pessimism and unjustified nostalgia that pervades the record. The ailment is not as new as each generation prefers to think. There is much too little recognition that, like the rest of us, Broadway has been dying since it was born.

The irony in all of this, of course, is that the obstinate pessimism fosters an unrealistic hope. The constant state of desperation encourages the critic to settle for nothing less than the new messiah of American Drama. Our best prospects—indeed our best playwrights —have been crippled by the pressure that comes from premature, extravagant pronouncements. To study the chronicles of American Theater is to notice these two, seemingly opposite, strains at work: the nagging frustration that there is no longer a worthwhile playwright as there used to be (finally, we have to ask. When? According to Foe, such was the prevalent complaint 100 years before O’Neill) and the attendant impulse to locate one.

Unsurprisingly, each age appears to have its own potential savior. Beside the persistence of this art-form-in-search-of-an-author mentality, each age has a vested interest in electing someone to the pantheon, to declare its own importance in the great march of theater history. But this tendency has inherent side effects which work against the desired end. So that, with characteristic dispatch, Tennessee Williams is seized very early in his career as the country’s first, pure dramatic poet. (To this day, even O’Neill, arguably our best playwright, is considered a flawed writer who consistently strove for greatness but achieved it too rarely, producing cumbersome language instead. As early as 1929, Robert Benchley wrote that “It takes a great deal of concentration on The Emperor ]ones and The Hairy Ape to keep alive the thought that Mr. O’Neill is America’s greatest dramatist. Of course, if he isn’t, the question arises, ‘Who is, then?’ and we scurry right back to Mr. O’Neill, with apologies.”) Somewhat later, Edward Albee, even earlier in his prime, is apprehended as the genius whose arrival was expected.

Both Williams and Albee were consumed by an unfulfillable promise that had been imposed upon them by the incandescent welcome they initially received. In some bizarre twist of circumstance, perpetrated primarily by the critics, they later competed not against their mentors or the best of their contemporaries, but rather against their younger selves. (Albee did “get some of his own back” with his last Broadway entry three years ago, The Man Who Had Three Arms, about a has-been freak who achieved international attention when a third arm appeared on his back, only to lose all the attention when his third arm disappeared as unaccountably as it had arrived. A metaphor for his own genius, The Man Who Had Three Arms was as much a curiosity as a critical and financial disaster. It was also an embarrassment for the audience it implicated no less than for the once-great playwright who has not had a real success in over 15 years.)

In his summary of theater in 1985 for the New York Times, Frank Rich managed to fit into one sentence the two major tendencies of American theater criticism, a cause for rejoicing in the midst of ongoing pessimism: “Sam Shepard was the year’s most spectacular reminder of the durability of the theatrical impulse, regardless of the theatrical industry’s hard times.” Rich devotes the first third of his discussion to Shepard’s newest drama, A Lie of the Mind. “Even if there were nothing else to recommend the past 12 months in the theater—and there is much more—A Lie of the Mind might lift 1985 above the undistinguished years that have characterized the decade.” He continues to argue passionately: “Mr. Shepard, it’s increasingly clear, is an artist who has his country in his blood and just can’t prevent its spirit from pouring out, in ever more poetic and exuberant forms of expression.”

At this point, would anyone dispute that Sam Shepard is considered our greatest American playwright today? Of course there arc peripheral possibilities, contenders such as Mamet, Rabe, Guare, Wilson (about whom, more next month), and lesser candidates in Durang, Norman, Henley. But from all quarters, Shepard seems to have inherited the mantle (dubious to begin with) from O’Neill by way of Williams.

“He is the best practicing American playwright, I think, now that Tennessee Williams is doodling,” wrote a less-than-satisfied Stanley Kauffmann in response to the first American production of Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class in 1978. “Sam Shepard caught the first wave of the Off-Broadway revolution in 1964 and rode it further than any of his American contemporaries,” explained John Lahr in a critical investigation which went on to reproach Shepard for “[clinging] to the romantic notion that somehow the ragged edges of his plays were authentic, when they were just sloppy.” Don Shewey, in his recent biography of Shepard, eliminates all equivocations: “He has no rivals as the most important and original American playwright to emerge since Tennessee Williams.”

At the ripe young age of 42, Shepard has more than 40 plays beneath his cowboy belt. But aside from a coterie of early followers, only the last handful of plays appear to “count” in terms of establishing a wider reputation for the author, beginning with Mad Dog Blues in 1971, then picking up momentum with The Tooth of Crime in 1973, and more or less crescendoing in 1978 with Buried Child, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. (On the premise that Tooth of Crime was Shepard’s consummate achievement, John Lahr felt that the award for Buried Child “continued the Pulitzer tradition of honoring the right playwright for the wrong play.”)

Although Shepard has probably gained more converts in the past few years than he secured in the first decade and a half of his career, he can hardly be said to have come out of nowhere. Born in Illinois, reared in California, trained in New York, educated at Yale (sort of—his degree is from Mount San Antonio Junior College), and escaping some years ago to England where he wrote Tooth of Crime, Shepard appears literally to have come from everywhere.

Shepard’s ubiquitous background contributes indirectly to the mystique that surrounds him. It also encourages the notion that he is the epitome of the American myth, as defined by the wanderlust that first motivated the pioneer and later typified the traveling salesman. As an early champion of Shepard, Robert Brustein extended the metaphor of the nomad by describing Shepard as an explorer of a different sort, a discoverer of metaphysical terrain: “With Sam Shepard, the American theatre takes a step beyond the Newtonian universe into a world of dream, myth, and inner space.” But considering how fertile the dramatic soil was in the 60’s when Shepard was cultivating it, and how receptive the marketplace was to innovation, Shepard was not unique in being a pioneer so much as in enduring long enough to receive the credit.

The Shepard mystique is predicated on ambiguity. His dramas typically suggest far more than they deliver. But as such, they prove ready receptacles for the theatergoing public and the critics who are desperately and traditionally in search of a playwright.

Perhaps taking notice of the bitter lesson that neither Williams nor Albee was spared, Shepard shrewdly avoided the early attention that they both welcomed. When his La Turista premiered at the American Place Theater in 1967 for a four-week run, critics and reviewers were not even invited to attend (this didn’t prevent Elizabeth Hardwick from “covering” it in a rave notice—later included as the introduction to the published version of the script—in which she proclaimed it “a work of superlative interest” that contains “the poignant meeting on some pure level of understanding of playwright, director, and actor”). To this day, a Shepard play has yet to play in a Broadway house, where it would reach as many people in a week as it reaches in several months at an off or off-off theater. In the numerous interviews Shepard has granted recently, or 21 years after his writing career began, he acknowledges that he previously evaded interviews.

Even as his physical profile has been appearing with greater frequency on the Silver Screen, eliciting comparison with Gary Cooper, Shepard has still maintained a “low profile” with scrupulous calculation, until recently. Well-armored with Obies and Pulitzers and praise from the right sources, Shepard has finally relented. The critics and reviewers who joined the bandwagon in the mid-70’s are barely aware of how inaccessible his earlier work was. Theatergoers who discover Shepard with his newest work, A Lie of the Mind, will never suspect that he is touching on the same tired themes that he ostensibly resolved in his last five plays. Each of Shepard’s last five plays is concerned with some variation of the family; and each is about as different from the other as an episode of Dynasty is, say, from an episode of As the World Turns.

Much has been made of how Shepard has continued the O’Neill tradition of dramatizing the tragedy of America through the tragedy of the family. But despite reports to the contrary, Shepard’s American family is not yours nor mine so much as it is the one that we fear might live across the hall or down the street or in some place we may have visited without ever getting to know any of the inhabitants. Shepard engages our attention by tapping our paranoia and feeding it back to us in quasi-surrealistic stage terms. Shepard’s American family is comprised of amputees (Buried Child), thieves (True West), wife-beaters (A Lie of the Mind), murderers (BC), perpetrators of incest (BC and Fool for Love), alcoholics and deserters (Curse of the Starving Class and ALOTM), pathological bars and certifiable loonies (all of them).

Shepard’s America has gone over the brink, and the insane residents on the other side are without relief or without the redeeming significance of Oswald in Fellini’s La Strada or Boo Radley in Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. His characters have personalities that are murky and transient to begin with, and frequently interchangeable during the course of the play (the brothers in TW; the father and son in COTSC; the brother and sister who become lovers and the vague role of their mysterious father in FFL; the multiple confusions in ALOTM). If, via Shepard, O’Neill’s American family has come of age, it has not lost its innocence or its naiveté so much as it has simply gone crazy.

If, as Frank Rich suggests in his original review of the play, “A Lie of the Mind is the unmistakable expression of a major writer nearing the height of his powers,” then Shepard is a less viable contender for the title of Great Playwright than we might have assumed. In this, his most recent play—and at four hours, presumably his longest to date—Shepard presents two hapless families, each consisting of four members. When the drama opens, Jake is phoning his brother Frankie from the road to report that this time when he beat his wife Beth, he surely killed her. Immediately establishing a sibling relationship reminiscent of ones to be found in True West and the film Paris, Texas (screenplay by Shepard), Shepard poses an hysterical or crazy brother with a sane and nurturing one.

In what will become a tedious rhythm and overbearing symmetry, this first scene dissolves into a second which finds Beth, Jake’s wife/victim, in a hospital bed, while her brother Mike nurses her. With rare exceptions for the duration of the play, the scenes alternate from one family to the other in a contrived fashion. In fact, the mechanical structure of ALOTM is more elementary, more obvious, than any other play I can think of (had it been created for a Playwrighting 101 course the instructor would have graded it as a clumsy work by a writer of promise). Yet Shepard’s message, if he has one, remains as blurry and as deliberately cryptic as usual. The heavy symbolic gestures, the bits of stage business, look like random insertions into the first draft. At best, they justify themselves as beautiful gestures, but they fail to justify the raw material of the play or the tissue that surrounds them.

In effect, ALOTM is two discrete plays focusing on two separate families—one in Southern California, the other in Montana—interwoven with obtrusive stitching. Instead of plot, Shepard supplies episodes, vignettes, and long monologues as background exposition and family histories. All is dressed up with countless theatrical moments that typify his plays even as they fail to amount to a coherent statement. A subdued Jake blows the ashes of his cremated father into the air while gazing stage-left at a naked woman (Beth) who is ostensibly hundreds of miles away. Beth’s parents ceremoniously fold an American flag, careful that it doesn’t touch the ground (Baylor, Beth’s father: “I don’t know. Just tradition, I guess. Funny how things come back to you after all these years . . . “). Meanwhile Beth is consummating her new relationship with Frankie, Jake’s brother and the surrogate of Jake in Beth’s eyes. At the same time, stage-right, Jake’s mother delights in watching her house go up in flames after she sets the match to it.

ALOTM is an amalgam of a number of Shepard plays that precede it. It is also filled with references to the life and works of Tennessee Williams: Beth making vague, repeated allusions to her having been lobotomized, reminding us of Williams’ beloved sister Rose; Jake’s father, appearing in absentia as perhaps the pivotal moving force in the play, recalling the paternal Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie who fell in love with “long distance” and abandoned the family; Williams’ intended use of music in Menagerie to “give emotional emphasis to suitable passages,” and Shepard’s affected, cinematic use of music here. But rather than borrow superficial traits and devices from Williams, Shepard should have heeded the far more substantial advice of his “Production Notes” or preface to Menagerie: “When a play employs unconventional techniques, it is not, or certainly shouldn’t be, trying to escape its responsibility of dealing with reality, or interpreting experience, but is actually or should be attempting to find a closer approach, a more penetrating and vivid expression of things as they are.” It is also instructive to note that Tom Wingfield (for our purposes, synonymous with Williams) gave us “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” In all of his works, Shepard presents illusion as if it were automatically some version of poetic truth.

The major problem with Shepard’s dramas is that the themes are never clarified or resolved. Instead, they are kept shrouded in vagueness. Shepard’s obsession with ambiguity probably originated with the 60’s sensibility of open-ended possibility. When, in ALOTM, Beth’s mother Meg says. “Please don’t scream in the house—this house is very old,” this is obviously meant to be a pregnant line—”this house” as America itself, so fragile and maligned that it can topple at any moment. But what is the point, Mr. Shepard? Is this a new or valuable insight? Or is it a comforting cliche fed to us in the guise of a puzzle, encouraging us in our smug desperation.

The legacy of American theater criticism insists that there is always a gap waiting to be filled. It is our grave misfortune that Sam Shepard, the contemporary fill-in, proves more symptomatic of the vacuum than the substance we yearn to fill it with. Despite our better judgment, Shepard has made a virtue out of a liability. By presenting the sort of heavy symbolism that no playwright has gotten away with since Ibsen, and that every self-respecting playwright—including Williams and Albee—had taken pains to avoid, Sam Shepard evidently satisfies the contemporary band of hungry critics, always anxious to locate a messiah today who can be crucified tomorrow. Shepard’s gimmick is his dressing up the emperor in old clothes; but it’s so long since we’ve seen this style of finery that the garments look new to us. Whether the clothes are new or old, the point is that our generation has more to learn from nursery rhymes of yore than from a play by Sam Shepard.


[A Lie of the Mind; Written by Sam Shepard; Premiere at the Promenade Theater (December 1985); New York]